The Gambler review

Mark Wahlberg stars as a dangerously indebted card player in The Gambler. A starry cast and slick dialogue enliven an uneven drama...

An actor more commonly cast in slightly aggressive, blue collar roles (most recently, as one Cade Yeager in Transformers: Age Of Extinction), Mark Wahlberg instead plays a privileged, well-educated literature professor with a self destructive streak in The Gambler.

A remake of the 1974 film starring James Caan and written by James Tolback, The Gambler sees Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett in debt to the tune of $260,000 due to his tendency to lose at games of blackjack in exclusive casinos. “I think you’re the kinda guy who likes to lose,” observes Neville (Michael K Williams), the ruthless gangster who’s more than keen to see Jim hand over the $60,000 he owes him.

A kind of superhero in reverse, Jim’s is a gambler by night and teacher by day. But unlike such silver screen tutors as Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society, Jim’s lessons are about as uplifting as a brick through your living room window. The average English lesson sees Jim castigating the majority of his class for not being as good at writing as Amy (Brie Larson), or wondering aloud why he’s even bothering to teach a group of 20-somethings who are more interested in sending texts than listening to him talk expound on Albert Camus’ The Outsider.

Quiet student Amy has a rare insight into Jim’s double life. A part-time cocktail waitress at one of the casinos where Jim constantly loses his money, she develops a profound crush on her tutor – and thanks to Jim’s mile-wide self-destructive streak, Jim reciprocates.

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Jim has an insight into his own addiction, but we’re given only the scantest clues as to where his appetite for gambling comes from. As John Goodman’s scarily nude, shaven-headed money lender tells us, Jim is the grandson of the 17th richest family in the country. So why is he so horribly in debt that gangsters all over town are alternately threatening to break his femurs or tow away his prized BMW?

Director Rupert Wyatt, who previously directed Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, is in more down-to-earth territory akin to his debut The Escapist here. Although shorn of the wide-collar shirts and macho medallions of the original, The Gambler is a drama that still shows its 70s roots. Wyatt brings suspense to his gambling scenes, but he’s also confident enough to let his characters spread out and simply chat about whatever’s on their minds: William Monahan’s screenplay has the verbose swagger of a card sharp as it ticks down the seven days Jim has left to pay back the various gangsters their thousands of dollars. In The Gambler’s best moments, this makes for some watchable dramatic fireworks; John Goodman’s extended monologue about financial security – or “fuck you money” as he delicately terms it – is engrossing stuff.

On the flip-side, there are scenes that fail to function as plot development or pleasing character insights. We really don’t need to see Wahlberg’s character argue with a pawn shop owner over the value of an Omega watch, for example – particularly given that this lengthy exchange is negated by the scene which immediately follows it.

Casting Wahlberg as a would-be card sharp and teacher is also something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, he’s a robust, charismatic presence (as Caan was), and his persona goes some way to papering over just how obnoxious Jim is as a character. Here’s a grown man who borrows huge sums of money from his mother (played by the wonderful Jessica Lange), and who thinks nothing of embarking on an affair with one of his own students. Wahlberg – just about – makes such a low-life worth rooting for, though the actor’s fast-talking style also raises a few questions of its own. Are college professors really allowed to stand in the halls, swearing and blaspheming in front of their students? Can they really lie down on their desk mid-lecture and admit defeat without being hauled into the principal’s office?

Rambling though The Gambler is, it’s handsomely shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser, and Wyatt really ups the dramatic stakes in the final third. The outcome of Jim’s best-laid plans might be predictable, but what keeps the plot simmering up to the final credits is the quality of the cast around Wahlberg. Goodman’s as magnetic as you’d expect and seems to enjoy his generous chunks of dialogue, while Michael K Williams makes a typical screen gangster genuinely interesting: threatening, urbane and wickedly funny. Of the top-notch cast, Brie Larson gets disappointingly little screen time – an oversight, given the attention The Gambler’s other characters are given.

Uneven and occasionally implausible, The Gambler gets by on the magnetism of its cast, the strength of its dialogue, and the morbid interest in seeing exactly where Jim’s subconscious desire to lose everything will take him next.

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The Gambler is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd January.

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3 out of 5